If you drink martinis with any degree of regularity, like I do, then you’ve probably had one shaken to within an inch of its life, the superfluous ice crystals floating on the surface like unwanted debris. Or perhaps you prefer it stirred, like any self-respecting martini drinker should. And you always insist it be made this way by your barkeep, right? (Bonus points for requesting extra vermouth.)
Or maybe you don’t care, as long as it’s numbingly cold and bracing, as a textbook martini should be. I’m pretty certain, though, that most of you have never had your martini “thrown” before. Don’t fret; even some of the most hardened martini connoisseurs I’ve encountered have never heard of this somewhat obscure technique. Unless you work behind a bar, in which case you might be privy to this showy technique.
Sitting in the tiny confines of Boadas, a shoebox of a bar located just off the tourist mayhem that is Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, the tuxedoed bartender, Jose Antonio Femenia Luis, has me completely mesmerized with the confident dexterity that comes with performing the same trick for 44 years.
In this case, that trick has come to be known — outside of Spain at least — as “throwing” and describes the way in which they make the drinks at Boadas that might typically be stirred in most other bars: martinis, Manhattans, Negronis. But Boadas is not like most other bars. It’s a lesson in drinking lore that stretches from Catalunya to Cuba and back again. More on that later.
I’ve been to this bar many times, and I always order the same thing: a dry Plymouth gin martini, served “up” and typically requested with a lemon twist that the bartender always forgets, dropping a single olive into the icy ravine instead. I never correct this oversight. By now it’s just minutiae anyway. The bartender and I share a smile and go about our business.
The weight of the olive, however, tips the meniscus over the rim of the glass, the gleaming liquid trickling down the stem, eventually staining the branded coaster. It’s a Lilliputian receptacle, a fine example of how a martini should be — and once was — served. I take a sip, I smile and everything is suddenly all right with the world. That’s not to say this is the perfect martini, as it could certainly be colder. Whatever. I have two more.
Boadas, in a semi-conspicuous location (perhaps somewhat unfortunate for those wanting a little solace), has become a place of pilgrimage for many cocktail historians, international bartenders and martini enthusiasts who have heard or read about this rather peculiar throwing technique, which has put the bar on the radar of the global bar community. Its reputation certainly piqued my own curiosity many years ago prior to my first visit.
I often wonder, usually after my third martini, if the staff wishes the bar were located somewhere else, far away from the Lonely Planet–wielding tourists who stumble in, oblivious to the reverence this bar holds amongst us drink nerds. Most people order something familiar, like a mojito or a daiquiri, both august libations that began life in Cuba, just like the founder of this venerable establishment. Most visitors probably prefer being outside in the Barcelona sunshine rather than the reticent cocoon of Boadas.
Miguel Boadas was born in Havana in 1895, and by his early 20s, he was tending bar at El Florida, owned by his cousin Don Narcisco Sala Perrera. Now called El Floridita, it is also known endearingly as La Cuna del Daiquiri (“the cradle of the daiquiri”) as this is where Constantino Ribalaigua Vert first mixed this now iconic, if typically bastardized mix of rum, lime and sugar. In 1918, Vert would take ownership of the bar and go on to become the most revered cantinero in Cuban history.
Hemingway was the most famous patron, his burly figure now immortalized in a bronze statue hunched over the bar, casting a watchful eye. After writing all day at his apartment on Calle Obispo, he would retreat to the Floridita, where he would hold court, entertaining the likes of Errol Flynn and Spencer Tracy and engaging in heroic feats of drinking that would typically involve his eponymous Papa Doble Daiquiri, a sugarless version created specifically in light of his diabetic condition.
It was at this bar, often frequented by dozens of wealthy Americans and celebrities — many of them escaping Prohibition and in search of contraband liquor — that Miguel Boadas would learn a technique known as “escanciado” that would one day become his signature move, copied by bartenders first in Spain and then around the world. In Spain, it is sometimes called the estillo Cubano, or “Cuban style,” while for many of us bartenders, it has come simply to be known as “throwing.”
Although it seems that all roads lead to Cuba with the origins of this technique, it was actually being practiced much earlier than this, back in the motherland, and specifically in the Basque Country, where they’ve been pouring two of their iconic beverages in a similar manner for centuries. Cidre (cider) and Txakoli wines are intrinsic points of national pride in these parts and when poured from high above the head, as is the custom, the aeration that occurs adds a delightful, slightly effervescent mouthfeel.
In 1925, Boadas immigrated to Barcelona, settling in the city where his parents were born. He opened his eponymous bar in 1933, a tiny room just off Las Ramblas, now the main tourist thoroughfare leading down to the trendy Barceloneta area. The cigarette smoke has cleared, but the place remains essentially untouched, according to my friendly bartender Jose Luis, who was kind enough to give me an in-depth history lesson on the place. His colleague Jeronimo Vaquero Barea is the general manager and has been there for 45 years.
Around the room are dozens of portraits, old photos and caricatures, many of them of Boadas himself and several of his daughter Maria Dolores, who started tinkering behind the bar when she was nine and took over when her father died in 1967. In one painting, she bears a striking resemblance to a young Liza Minnelli. Dolores was a regular fixture behind the bar until the last several years (Alzheimer’s has kept her away). When I visited two years ago, she was behind the bar, crying openly. I wasn’t sure why, but her pain was palpable. I paid my check and left.
She, too, was once a master at throwing cocktails, and while the technique does have its own theatrical raison d’être, it isn’t all just for show. There are very specific reasons for using such a practice, many of which speak about the important technical mechanics of texture, temperature and dilution of making cocktails that would otherwise typically be stirred. Such drinks are usually only alcohol-based, and bartenders stir these so they do not overdilute them, and therefore they maintain a certain viscosity and an oily mouthfeel, both desirable traits.
Shaking drinks, on the other hand, not only adds more water, but it adds tiny air bubbles. This aeration is not so welcome unless the drink also includes ingredients such as juices, syrups, eggs, cream or fresh fruits. Drinks like this — a couple of good examples would be a classic daiquiri or a sidecar — are never “thrown,” as the ingredients do not mix together appropriately. That said, the first drink that Miguel Boadas applied his escanciado to, Luis tells me, was a Brandy Alexander. It’s also rather common to see the Bellini and the Bloody Mary thrown by certain bartenders these days.
Throwing has since moved well beyond the borders of Spain, now widely practiced with extreme aplomb all over Russia, Italy, the United Kingdom and Australia. In America, it has still yet to catch on, though at Dante in New York City, we throw all our martinis as a nod of respect to the past and perhaps a look into what might transpire in the future. Time will tell.
The Boadas Cocktail
- 1 ounce light Cuban rum
- 1 ounce orange Curacao
- 1 ounce Dubonnet Rouge
Pour into a mixing glass over ice. Cover the ice with a strainer. Pour the liquid from high above the head into another mixing glass. Repeat 3-4 times until well chilled. Pour into a cold cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.
The Perfect Dry Martini
- 2.5 ounces Plymouth gin
- ½ ounce dry vermouth
Throw back and forth between two mixing glasses with ice. Strain into a frozen glass. Garnish with a lemon twist (or an olive).